Nuclear Energy and How it Affects the Environment

As the dangers of fossil fuels and the threat that global warming is posing become more obvious, many people are looking for alternatives for energy sources. Nuclear power is a form of energy that could be cheap, simple to produce, and sustainable. It has the potential to power all of our homes and buildings, without greenhouse gas emissions. However, many people globally, especially politicians and investors, believe that nuclear energy is too risky and that alternative using energy sources would be better. As American journalist Michael Specter once said, “Humanity has nearly suffocated the globe with carbon dioxide, yet nuclear power plants that produce no such emissions are so mired in objections and obstruction that, despite renewed interest on every continent, it is unlikely another will be built in the United States.”

What is nuclear energy?

Nuclear energy is the energy found in the nucleus of an atom. When released, it can produce a substantial amount of power. Nuclear power plants take atoms, mostly ones found in uranium, and go through the process of nuclear fission. Nuclear fission is when atoms are split to release that energy. The energy from the nucleus is harvested, and that is what we turn into electricity and use to power buildings and homes. Nuclear fission creates a byproduct of nuclear energy: radioactive material. Radioactive material is hard to dispose of. When not done properly, it can have very serious effects on the surrounding people and animal populations, as well as the environment.

When did nuclear energy arise?

This was first discovered during World War II with the invention of the atomic bomb. After the war, many scientists thought that nuclear energy would be a healthier version of the extremely fatal weapon. When nuclear energy started becoming a more popular idea, nuclear power plants were built. In 1954, the first nuclear power plant designed to provide energy to a community was built in Obninsk, Russia. From there, a few more plants opened all around the world, including in the United States. Despite the success of the first nuclear power plants, many investors saw nuclear energy as a risky investment, as opposed to oil companies and other up-and-coming sustainable energy options like solar energy and wind power. Political leaders saw it as a risk because nuclear weapons could easily be manufactured at nuclear power plants without the knowledge of foreign countries. Others worried that the radioactive waste would contaminate the water and ground surrounding the power plants. Up until the 1970s, nuclear energy was not widely used and most were opposed. War in the Middle East, however, made the price of oil significantly rise, which made countries look for alternative energy sources. 

What are the positive environmental factors of using nuclear energy?

The biggest argument as to why we should use nuclear energy comes from the fact that no fossil fuels are released into the atmosphere. Approximately 65% of greenhouse gas emissions come from CO2 produced in the burning of fossil fuels and industrial processes. That’s just over 5 billion metric tons being released into our atmosphere annually. The effects of producing that many greenhouse gases are catastrophic and will lead to the temperature of the Earth being too hot. So the appeal to use a power source that produces no CO2 is extremely appealing. Another advantage of using nuclear power is the scale at which it produces energy. A single power plant has the potential to produce enough energy for 47,700 homes per year. The average ‘small town’ in the United States has 6,200 homes.

What are the negative environmental factors of using nuclear energy?

Radioactive waste, the byproduct of nuclear energy, can be very harmful to anyone or anything that comes in contact with it. It’s hard to dispose of, takes thousands of years to break down, and has the potential to alter DNA and cause sickness and disease in humans, animals, and plants. Some of the nuclear power plant accidents we think of when we discuss nuclear energy are: the Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Plant (near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania) that had a core meltdown in 1979, the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant explosion (formerly found in Pripyat, Ukraine) that happened in 1986 and the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant that had three nuclear meltdowns in 2011. The aftermath of these accidents was prolific, so it’s no wonder people are reluctant; using nuclear energy is risky.

Sources:

Kukreja, Rinkesh. “Dangers and Effects of Nuclear Waste Disposal.” Conserve Energy Future, 2021, https://www.conserve-energy-future.com/dangers-and-effects-of-nuclear-waste-disposal.php#:~:text=Although%20most%20of%20the%20time,generations%20of%20animal%20and%20plants. Accessed 10 May 2021.

Kukreja, Rinkesh. “Radioactive Waste: Various Types and Devastating Effects.” Conserve Energy Future, 2021, https://www.conserve-energy-future.com/types-of-radioactive-waste.php. Accessed 10 May 2021.

Kurzgesagt – In a Nutshell. Nuclear Energy Explained: How does it work? 1/3. 26 March 2015. Youtube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rcOFV4y5z8c. Accessed 10 May 2021.

National Geographic. “Nuclear Energy.” National Geographic, 24 May 2011, https://www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/nuclear-energy/#:~:text=Powered%20by-,Nuclear%20energy%20is%20the%20energy%20in%20the%20nucleus%2C%20or%20core,in%20an%20atom%27s%20dense%20nucleus. Accessed 10 May 2021.

United States Environmental Protection Agency. “Global Greenhouse Gas Emissions Data.” EPA, 2014, https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/global-greenhouse-gas-emissions-data. Accessed 10 May 2021.

U.S. Energy Information Administration. “How much electricity does an American home use?” eia, 9 October 2020, https://www.eia.gov/tools/faqs/faq.php?id=97&t=3. Accessed 11 May 2021.

U.S. Energy Information Administration. “How much electricity does a nuclear power plant generate?” eia, 28 December 2020, https://www.eia.gov/tools/faqs/faq.php?id=104&t=3. Accessed 11 May 2021.

Bycatch and the Fishing Industries Effect on the Food Chain

In 2018, Americans ate nearly 16.1 pounds of seafood throughout the entire year. Many vegetarians find themselves eating fish because it’s an excellent source of protein. Seafood has been a common meal for thousands of years. But lately, the fishing industry has been under scrutiny because of the amount of damage they are causing through overfishing and bycatch. What do you need to know about where your fish is coming from?

What is bycatch?

Bycatch is the incidental capture of non-target species, such as dolphins, turtles, seabirds, and fish of a different species. Bycatch happens because of the gear that is used in modern commercial fishing. The most common types of gear- longlining, trawling, and gillnets- are incredibly effective. Their effectiveness leads to all sorts of creatures getting pulled overboard that the fishermen don’t want. The creatures are then thrown back overboard, however many of the creatures are already dead by the time they return to the water. In the United States, nearly 2 billion pounds of bycatch are thrown overboard annually. That’s over 10% of all animals caught.

Why do fishermen discard so many animals?

The main reason a fisherman will throw a sea creature back into the ocean, regardless of whether the creatures are alive or not, is because they do not have the permits. To legally catch and sell a fish they must have the permits to do so. Big fishing companies, the kind you might buy from at your local grocery store, have very specific regulations about what kind of fish each boat can catch. Another reason may be because the creature isn’t market-worthy. When seabirds are caught, fishermen feel they have to release them back because there is no way to sell a seabird.

What is overfishing?

Overfishing is the depletion of the stock of fish across the world because of too much fishing. The number of overfished stocks in the world has tripled in the last half a century. It’s estimated that by 2048, all seafood will be gone. But if companies in the fishing industry know about this, why wouldn’t they slow the rate at which they are catching and selling? The answer is simple: it would drive up the price of fish to an absurd amount, and ultimately put them out of business.

How does that affect the environment?

Bycatch and overfishing are causing a huge disruption in the food chain. If sharks, dolphins, and other species at the top of the food chain don’t have any food to eat, their population will die off. After some time, smaller crustaceans and some plants will rapidly increase until they consume all of the plankton and small organisms, then they will die off too. Fish are essential in keeping the food chain running properly, but with bycatch and overfishing, we could see the entire thing collapse.

What’s being done?

Many activist groups are taking action by boycotting unsustainable fishing practices. They believe that using more sustainable gear is important and want people to only buy from places that support sustainable fishing. Some companies are following the activist group’s advice and doing so, but others are having trouble monitoring how much fish and bycatch they are catching, while still catching enough fish to make money and keep their companies running.

Sources

Bland, Alastair. “Why 500 Million U.S. Seafood Meals Get Dumped In The Sea.” NPR, 21 March 2014, https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2014/03/21/292094853/why-500-million-u-s-seafood-meals-get-dumped-in-the-sea. Accessed 13 April 2021.

Molyneaux, Paul. “Bye-bye bycatch: Net design and electronics help fishermen keep their catch clean.” National Fisherman, 2 April 2021, https://www.nationalfisherman.com/boats-gear/bye-bye-bycatch-net-design-and-electronics-help-fishermen-keep-their-catch-clean. Accessed 13 April 2021.

NOAA Fisheries. “Understanding Bycatch.” fisheries.noaa.gov, 2021, https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/insight/understanding-bycatch. Accessed 13 April 2021.

Pellman Rowland, Michael. “Two-Thirds Of The World’s Seafood Is Over-Fished — Here’s How You Can Help.” Forbes, 24 July 2017, https://www.forbes.com/sites/michaelpellmanrowland/2017/07/24/seafood-sustainability-facts/?sh=40d748f44bbf. Accessed 13 April 2021.

World Wildlife Fund. “What is Bycatch?” worldwildlife.org, 2020, https://www.worldwildlife.org/threats/bycatch. Accessed 12 April 2021.

World Wildlife Fund. “What is overfishing?” worldwildlife.org, 2020, https://www.worldwildlife.org/threats/overfishing. Accessed 12 April 2021.